The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918 occurred 100 years ago on June 22, 1918. The focus of the centennial has been on the 56 members of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus who are buried in the mass grave at Showmen’s Rest in Woodlawn Cemetery. However, thanks to the efforts of family historian, Michael Dierickx and his nephew, Drew Badger, the life and legacy of survivor, Joseph Dierickx has been brought to light. 

Joseph Filbert Dierickx was a member of “The Great Dierickx Brothers” strongman act. The trio included his brother, Arthur and Max Freehand. Their signature stunt was to support a bridge with their legs, while elephants walked across it. 

The three were asleep on the circus train, when an empty troop train smashed into the rear cars. Arthur and Max were killed and Joseph Dierickx was thrown from the car. The wreckage was quickly engulfed in flames. Brakeman Oscar Timm pulled the unconscious Dierickx to safety. He remained unconscious for 30 hours, while he was treated at St. Antonio’s Hospital in Gary, having suffered a skull fracture and multiple fractures to his jaw and leg. He was temporarily paralyzed on one side. The first face he saw when he awoke was his nurse, Marie Jones.

The crash coincided with Dierickx’s 33rd birthday. He had been born in Belgium on June 22, 1885. His last name is common there and he later Americanized the pronunciation to “Derricks.” In 1906, Dierickx left his family to serve as a “captain’s boy” on a steamer sailing between Antwerp and America. Part of his job was to protect the captain. 

Dierickx was well-suited for the job. He stood 5-feet-10, weighed 180 pounds and was skilled at self-defense. He had a stocky build and a huge chest. On his final trip to Boston, the captain suggested that he stay in America.  

In their adopted country, Joseph and Arthur Dierickx went into vaudeville. They surfaced in the 1910 census, living in a boarding house in Chicago’s 21st Ward. Joseph’s occupation was listed as “actor/athlete.” It is not known how they went from vaudeville to the circus, but it seemed a natural career progression. 

Following the crash, Joseph Dierickx fell in love with his nurse, who was only 20 years old. She was the half-sister of Bonnie Rockne, wife of Notre Dame’s legendary football coach. This would later prove to be a valuable connection. Four months after the wreck, they married and moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “He was on the police department,” Michael Dierickx explained, “He was part of the mounted police protecting the president of Bethlehem Steel during labor riots.”

The couple had their first two children in Bethlehem. Philbert Arthur Dierickx was born in 1919 and Arthur John Dierickx in 1921. After Arthur’s birth, Joseph and Marie decided to head west, with another couple. “Joseph strapped Phil on the back of his motorcycle and the other couple drove a truck,” Dierickx said. “They stopped in South Bend because it looked like a good place to live.” Dierickx constructed the family home at 1112 Eddy Street. It was only a mile from the Notre Dame campus. 

The couple had five sons, including John, Richard and George, who died at birth. None of the four surviving sons went into show biz. 

Dierickx went to work for the Studebaker Automobile Company and remained there as the family struggled through the Great Depression. In 1930, he landed a job as superintendent of Notre Dame Stadium. A year later, Knute Rockne would die in a plane crash. Being stadium superintendent was a good fit for Dierickx. He kept the job until 1965, when his boss told him, “You need to retire. You’re 80 years old.” 

Michael Dierickx got to know his grandparents during this period. “I stayed with them during the summer of 1969,” he said, “I lived in the basement. They kept canned goods down there because they never wanted to be hungry again.” He described Marie as being very pleasant, motherly and caring. “She was the definition of a grandmother.” 

Joseph Dierickx, by contrast, was very quiet and reserved. “He didn’t talk about his career with the circus.” The former strongman did not bear any scars, or disabilities from the train crash, but “he would never talk about the wreck.” He would also never return to his native Belgium, though he kept in touch with his family. “He wrote letters to his five sisters in French.” 

Thanks to his job, the Dierickx family established strong ties with the university. Michael and Joseph attended the 1965 Notre Dame vs. Michigan State game and got to see him during his final days as superintendent. The whole family descended on South Bend to celebrate Joseph’s 80th birthday. Dierickx succumbed to cancer on Feb. 26, 1972. Marie passed away two years later. 

Michael Dierickx, who graduated from Notre Dame, has been busy burrowing into family lore. “I’m very proud to be a Dierickx. I admire Joe leaving Belgium as a teenager and moving west. They were very optimistic people. They left a legacy, showing that people can overcome adversity.” 

Drew Badger, though, only learned recently of his connection to the Dierickx family. His mother, Marie Dierickx Taylor, is Michael’s older sister. Marie was unmarried when she became pregnant with Badger. The father was the son of a Baptist minister, who insisted that Marie convert. A staunch Catholic, Marie refused and had the baby in a home for “wayward girls” in Charlotte, North Carolina. Badger was adopted shortly after his birth.

Two years ago, Badger underwent a DNA test through to find his birth parents. It came back 99% positive that Marie was his mother. “I first met my mother on April 1, 2016. We have a very good relationship and she writes to me. I also met my two half-brothers, William and David Taylor.” Badger has become close with his new family, meeting Michael at last year’s solar eclipse. “I’ve loved every minute of it,” he said, adding that he has also enjoyed his connection to the circus strongman. “It’s been amazing and answers a lot of questions.” He can see the Dierickx family resemblance in his son and daughter and he inherited Joseph Dierickx’s barrel chest. It’s also remarkable how the show biz gene skipped generations but is present in the Badger family. 

He is a professional actor, who has been doing voice work and training other performers for 25 years. His children are in theater. They are continuing a family tradition that started in vaudeville and survived a horrific crash a century ago.

This story has been changed to correct the location where Drew Badger was born.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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